First thing you need to know is that “Into the Wild” is not about the wilderness.
The protagonist does starve to death in the Alaskan outback; he does carry a backpack; he does go on epic hikes; he does paddle a kayak to Mexico.
But what’s his real motivation for these adventures? The edifying character transformation available only to those who gamble with nature and win? Or to punish his parents?
It’s a gorgeous movie with a harrowing three-hankie conclusion — an uncanny feat when you consider everybody knows the ending before the opening credits roll. But it’s also the story of a spoiled upper-middle-class twit who abandoned his parents — leaving them in a constant state of anguish while he’s living it up traipsing across the West with Waldenesque delusions of grandeur. Oh, and then he dies, tearing their lives to shreds.
Great guy; a pity he left this world so soon.
OK, that was crass, but it’s not a reaction to reality, just the story — that collection of scenes writer/director Sean Penn and his film crew stitched together into a cinematic narrative. A story told after the death of Christopher McCandless, mostly via those who met him during his travels, and the journal he kept at his “magic bus” in the Alaskan bush.
It’s clear Sean Penn thinks he’d have liked the guy. He was kind, charming, charismatic, naive — the kind who triggers a parental urge to look after him.
And yet, Penn also gives us a guy who rejected every parental approach that came his way. He didn’t believe in parents, Penn tells us; all he believed in was himself.
But here’s the thing: all those would-be parents kept him alive for the duration of his travels; once he was beyond their protection, he perished.
It’s hard for me to like a movie when the main character disgusts me. I don’t dislike him because he disrespected the power of nature; any rookie could make that mistake. What I couldn’t abide was his inability to appreciate how good he had it in that terrible, stifling upper-middle-class existence of his. Almost any of us who came up under lesser circumstances would’ve traded places with him in a heartbeat. Free BA at Emory, and all I have to do is endure inattentive, bickering parents? Free Harvard Law sheepskin, and all I have to do is put up with Dad wanting to buy me a new car? Where the hell do I sign up?
But as I said, it’s just a story. I’m not going to judge a guy’s life — and death — on the word of the guy who played Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” A life can’t be shoehorned into a movie script, and McCandless isn’t around to correct any errors Penn might’ve introduced because it made better cinema.
On the odd chance that Penn got it right, however, I’ll say this: if you want to punish your Ma, follow Pink Floyd’s advice and buy a guitar. The wilderness can make you whole, but it can also eat you whole — it’s all the same to Nature, where death is integral to the cycle of life. It’s no place to be working out your issues with parents, authority, capitalism and everything else; staying alive tends to require one’s full attention.